Frustrated student in library
Reflections

Reflections on Learning: Giving Students Assignments They Hate

Questions for teaching-learning discussion groups or individual reflection

In this week’s Teaching Professor Blog, I offered strategies to help move our conversations about teaching beyond the “tips and tricks” to the kind of thought-provoking discussions that help promote, motivate, and sustain our growth as teachers.

Here I have outlined potential questions that can be used in a discussion group or for individual reflection. The exercise centers on those unpopular assignments that we sometimes give our students and is based on an article in this Journal on Excellence in College Teaching:

DeWall, N., (2016). Millennials by heart: Memorization as an active learning strategy for the SparkNotes Generation. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 27 (4), 77-91.

A synopsis: Nichole DeWall gives students an assignment they hate. Students must scan, paraphrase, and memorize a self-selected passage or poem from one of the assigned texts. Then they recite the memorized material in private to her, and teach the passage to classmates in a short, interactive presentation. Finally, they write a low-stakes reflective essay about the experience.

The article explores the rationale behind the assignment, why it’s appropriate, especially for Millennial students, and what they learn by doing it.

Even though it’s an article about an assignment few faculty will ever use, it’s well-worth reading and even more worth discussing because it raises issues much larger than the details of her assignment.

POTENTIAL DISCUSSION TOPICS AND QUESTIONS

Should we give students an assignment they hate?

“The assignment’s ability to make students uncomfortable increases its value.” (p. 80)

“Piercing Millennial students’ egos allows them to be open to truly transformational learning. Therefore it is neither necessary nor desirable for the classroom to feel like a seamless extension of our Millennial student’s native worlds.” (p. 80)

“Students sharpen their metacognitive skills when they memorize, teach, and reflect upon their poems; they also leave my classes with constant companions that may just help them make sense out of their lives. For these reasons, I continue to ask my students to commit verse to memory every semester, despite their objections (and, often, my colleagues, bewilderment).” (p. 87)

How do students see classrooms? Do they act the same way in the classroom as they do everywhere else because we have failed to make classroom spaces look and feel different from everywhere else?

Does an assignment that causes discomfort produce a different kind of learning? If so, how is it different and is it a better kind of learning?

How much discomfort is enough, too much, and how does a teacher make that determination?

Most faculty work to make classroom environments feel safe and comfortable. Does giving an assignment that makes students uncomfortable compromise that objective?

How many of our assignments cause discomfort? Enough? Not enough?

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Technology

How Can I Align Technology with My Pedagogical Goals? [Transcript]

Many educators have an uneasy alliance with technology. They may be unsure about its value in accomplishing learning goals or how it can enhance the teaching experience. Because technologies are not necessarily designed with the classroom in mind, educators who want to avail themselves of these tools are often challenged on how to integrate them into the course curriculum.

In How Can I Align Technology with My Pedagogical Goals?, Dr. Dave Yearwood, professor at the University of North Dakota, outlines many of the ways that educators can use selected technology tools to drive student performance and engagement.

This transcript will help you:

  • Assess your pedagogical and technological assets and deficiencies
  • Use the results of the assessment to state how you could better support student learning through e-pedagogical practices
  • Use a multimedia approach that emphasizes audio, visual, and experiential learning
  • Adapt—rather than adopt—selected technologies to accomplish learning goals

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learning assessment techniques
Grading and Feedback

Three Learning Assessment Techniques to Gauge Student Learning

A learning assessment technique (LAT) is a three-part integrated structure that helps teachers to first identify significant learning goals, then to implement effectively the kinds of learning activities that help achieve those goals, and finally—and perhaps most importantly—to analyze and report
on the learning outcomes that have been achieved from those learning activities.

LATs are correlated to Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning, such that there are about 6–10 techniques for each of the learning dimensions, including techniques to help students learn the foundational knowledge of the subject and help students apply that foundational knowledge to real situations so that it becomes useful and much more meaningful to them.

There are techniques that help students integrate ideas—different realms of knowledge—so that the learning is more powerful. There are techniques to help students recognize the personal and social implications of what they are learning, which is what Dee Fink calls the human dimension. There are techniques to help students care about what they are learning so that they’re willing to put the effort into what they need to learn. And finally, there are techniques to help students become better and more self-directing learners (learning how to learn).

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online learning communities of practice
Online Learning

Facilitating Communities of Practice in Online Courses

What are communities of practice?
A community of practice is a network of people who exchange knowledge about a common profession. Members of the community exchange best practices and share evidence and results while supporting each other on a personal level. Good examples of these communities are the LinkedIn groups that can be found for nearly any profession.

While communities of practice are common and valuable in the working world, too often the interactions within a course are designed to apply only to that course, rather than prepare the student for the broader discussion within the profession that they will encounter after leaving school. That’s why I focus on forming communities of practice within my online courses.

A gradual approach to communities of practice
While there are various ways to promote communities of practices in online courses, I find discussion forums are the easiest place to start. When I design my discussion forums for my classes, I use a gradual design approach that spans the entire semester. The idea is to use the forum to facilitate a pathway toward communities of practice for the students.

communities of practice

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self-regulated learners
Teaching Strategies and Techniques

Ways to Promote Student Responsibility for Learning

As noted in the Teaching Professor Blog post, student responsibility for learning can happen in three different arenas. First and foremost, students are responsible for their learning. Teachers can encourage and support learning endeavors in a variety of ways, but students must do the learning.

Second, students should have responsibility for all those tasks that improve learning and develop learning skills—the kind of tasks teachers do so regularly that students have come to believe that they are teacher responsibilities. It’s the teachers’ job to tell them what’s important, review what they need to know and provide every assignment detail. However, doing for students what they should be doing on their own creates dependent learners. They’re unable to make decisions or don’t make very good ones, and they resist assuming responsibility for the very parts of the learning process that enable them to learn.

Finally, there are responsibilities that students could share with teachers. Students could be given some say in how the class is run, how they will learn the content, and how that learning is assessed. Students can be involved in providing feedback and evaluating the work of their peers. Sharing responsibilities with students empowers them as learners.

Teachers frequently talk with students about their responsibilities as learners, but telling students doesn’t usually garner the desired results. However, a number of faculty are using strategies, approaches, activities, and assignments designed in a way that they can’t be completed without students assuming some responsibility for learning. Here’s a collection of ideas with references for those that have been published.

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Preparing to Teach

23 Practical Strategies to Help New Teachers Thrive

“If you know the content, you can teach.”

How many of us have heard this sentiment before? How many of us believe it ourselves?

It is easy to assume that a content expert is automatically qualified to teach a course on his or her area of expertise. Much of the graduate-level preparation for entering university teaching is based on this assumption; graduate students study their subject areas, but little discussion is had about how to teach and what methods might be most effective. This is regrettable, because while content is important, the content needs to have solid pedagogy behind it in order to be effective in the classroom. Content can fall flat if all the instructor is doing is sharing the information in didactic fashion.

The concept extends to become a belief that good teachers don’t need to practice. This belief is also false, as many faculty development experts know; faculty development usually means remediation, whether one is dealing with experienced administrators or new faculty.

Higher education supports this myth; if an instructor gets good ratings and is considered a “good teacher,” then no one recommends that he or she work with a faculty developer. However, few instructors can say that they have had an entire class period go perfectly, let alone an entire course.

The reality is, there are ways to improve a class in both large and small ways every day. What works well one semester may not work well the next time the course is taught. There is always more to learn and there are always better ways to serve students.

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Balancing quality and quantity
Online Learning

Three Strategies to Improve Online Course Quality on Your Campus

When talking about online education, quality can be hard to define. This should come as no surprise, though. Institutions have been struggling for years to define quality in face-to-face courses.

Consider this dictionary definition of quality: The standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind; the degree of excellence of something.

Institutions may attempt to measure the quality of online courses and programs in a variety of ways, including student and faculty satisfaction data, retention rates, student evaluations of teaching, student learning outcomes for a course, peer (instructor) evaluations of teaching, course design, student graduation or exit surveys, employer surveys, etc.

There is no question that institutions have been placing more emphasis on the quality of their online programs in the last five to ten years. Here are some thoughts in response to that new interest—principles that I’ve found to be important in maintaining quality in online courses.

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Worksheets and Checklists

Brainstorming Questionnaire for Designing or Improving a Course with Increased Faculty Presence

Faculty presence is a component of the online classroom that’s sometimes overlooked or underestimated by new online instructors, but it is often the most important determining factor for a student’s success and overall satisfaction in a course.

Instructor presence influences the ways that your students interact with the course content and how they interact with you. So, if you're not there, why should they be?

One of the things I like to think about with my classes is how do I form a better learning community? That's something that a lot of instructors do in a face-to-face classroom. But when it comes to online instruction it's a little more challenging.

I’ve outlined below some opportunities for increasing faculty presence. These are moments during the class when you can reach out to students and demonstrate that you're a real person who's there for them. You’ll find opportunities before the course begins, at various checkpoints, during follow up and interventions, beyond the classroom, and as part of the course wrap-up.

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Ideas about online teaching learning
Online Learning

What Students Can Teach Us about Online Learning

My students participate in an activity called “Building a Learning Community” during the first week of classes. In this activity, completed via a discussion board, I ask them to share about three topics: what their best and “not best” teachers did that helped or hindered their learning, what peers have done that has had a positive or negative impact, and feedback on certain policies (e.g., late work, deadlines). The answers have taught me a lot about online teaching, and my responses on these boards provide the students with insight on what they can expect from me.

Students report that their “best” teachers had multiple ways to present ideas and were relatable and involved. They also enjoy lessons that include more than just reading the textbook and watching a lecture, lessons that, when appropriate, incorporate outside videos, other materials, or instructor-made videos to demonstrate concepts covered in the lecture and/or text. They typically define “relatable” faculty as those who make their enthusiasm for their topics and their students’ successes visible even through cyberspace, who talk “to them” about topics in lectures rather than “at them,” and who invite questions in person or virtually. Those identified as better teachers were those who make it clear they read discussion boards, either through being “on the boards” with the students or via the feedback given. Those instructors also tended to send a weekly message to wrap up lessons, preview the upcoming week, or comment on a common issue that might have come up in the class. These instructors were visible and obviously “in the class” with the students, being more of a “guide on the side” than a “sage on the stage.” The less effective teachers read straight from slides with no elaboration during video lectures, rarely encouraged students or gave much feedback, weren’t attentive to class concerns, and failed assignments for reasons such as formatting not being 100 percent correct. Students most commonly express frustration with past instructors who did not return emails or phone calls.

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Online Learning

Set Students up for Success in Online Courses

Student success comes from strong leadership, including establishing rapport, providing resources, and putting the onus of responsibility on the students, rather than the instructor. Perhaps the most important area for success in any online course is what I call the “start here” area. Let’s explore this idea further.

“Start here” area
Some instructors call this an introductory area or a “welcome to the course” area. I like calling it “start here,” because, quite frankly, it’s incredibly descriptive and leaves no room for misinterpretation.

Let’s take a look at the six key elements of a start-here area: the instructor introduction video, course expectations, main assignment tutorials, technology tutorials, student engagement areas, and a syllabus quiz.

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